I give up. I don’t like anything I’m writing and I just really like reading. I can’t seem to get a paper into any shape that I’m happy about. And it’s mid July now. What happened to the productive summer?
I’ve been avoiding blogging because I thought of it as a waste of time and energy that I could put toward other, more meaningful writing. But what a weird sentence. Writing isn’t writing unless it’s meaningful, right? Right?? So to this end, it's back to blogging as it might kick start a better writing quality in my other stuff. I hope it does. At the very least, blogging makes you feel like you've done something, so there's a faux sense of accomplishment that I'll get from these posts. But I really hope that writing is writing, and that some productive recognizable but unquantifiable good comes of this in the other stuff I'm working on.
A big project I'm working on and thinking about is public speaking. The course. I teach it a lot and I'm usually pretty unahppy with how it goes. Since we live in the era of text, a tertiary literacy (riffing off of Walter Ong’s Secondary Orality idea) we should be very comfortable with the idea of what is meaningful and what is not. But instead of that we are racing to the shallow end of the pool – the facts. We think writing is good if it is factual, full stop. There’s nothing much more to it than that.
I really want to do my part to upend this but the rhetorical pressures are real. So what is it you teach? Oh, it’s like marketing but for all things and ideas in the world. There isn’t a soul alive at the university who wants to think outside of a career path for a course of study anymore. Or if there are, they are few and quiet. There have to be ways to make room for practices of daily existence and not just career planning.
So to this end I have been working on Roman education and Roman pedaogy, something that is similar and familiar to being a young person in the United States would be being a young person at the end of the Republic and the dawn of the Empire. Ceasar was totally uninterested in the legality and the process of what he was doing, he just wanted to be in power. I think that’s probably where the comparison ends with Trump. Anyway, the transition for the Romans would have been pretty smooth. It would have been as if no transition had occurred at all (perhaps some future historian is reading this and laughing as in their field they identified this elusion with President Johnson. No not that one, the Lincoln one). This differentientation of Empire and Republic is easy to do if you are watching Star Wars or if you are looking at history. If you are living in it, much tougher to discern. The Romans are showing us this through their pastimes, notably declamation and the concerns therein.
Secondly the Roman pedagogy is good for my purposes because it is from a society that is not capitalist. Are they imperial, are they conquerers? For sure, but I don’t think they are capitalists. I think to have capitalism, you must recognize money as a material value in itself and not as an exchange medium. Perhaps the difference is that the exchange medium has a value that can be rendered. Anyway, people who have read Marx closer and better than me can comment on this. I think it’s good to show models of powerful societies to students that are not capitalist in order to get the wheels turning that they have all the choice in the world as to what sort of system or economy we are going to have and it starts with what they express and what they say.
So I’m thinking of a declamation style event at the end of the term that is similar to a TED Talk but it would be declamation TED, maybe something like Debate, Oratory, and Argument, DOA – an unfortunate acronym that is definitely an extension of my concerns about teaching this. For most people, the art of speech is dead on arrival – at the same time, they are up in arms about “communication skills” – whatever those are. People claim that these are the reason you get hired and fired and what builds a career and such. But if you asked them to name communication skills people would say all sorts of things that are really odd together: “Being able to write a proper email,” “Being able to look away from their phone for a minute,” “knowing how to engage in conversation,” “knowing how to give a presentation,” “understanding proper business etiquette,” Etc.
I hate to say it but there’s only one field historically that can handle all that and it’s rhetoric. Rhetoric is often thought of as oratory and persuasion, brilliant argument, etc. but more consistent through rhetorical history is the idea of appropriateness, or decorum. It’s mostly about attitudes and motives as Burke would say, and how we learn to respond situationally to what texts are presented to us.
It seems like looking back at the Roman educational system – the declamation and they way it was taught – was a method for dealing with a textual/oral culture that was somewhat overbearing and impossible to keep straight in your head. A lot of the panic about identity that comes out as racism now might be because of a loss of these abilities – complexity and confusion are good breeding grounds for finding scapegoats if you are not trained. This might be why the Roman declamation cases deal with torture, immigration, and people who are political or social minorities (women, slaves, children, children of slaves and citizens, foreign soldiers, poor people, etc). Still cooking on this but it’s coming together at least in my head.
So maybe all writing is writing. Maybe meaningfulness is what I am working on and writing is simply how you do it? Still not sure, but hoping that this post and the ones after it make me feel a bit better about the quality of what I’m making here at the midpoint of summer, whatever that is supposed to be for academic types.